TV shows at the barber shop & why the internet isn’t the end of political discussion

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Postcard of the sea serpent

In a New York Times article about how the internet shapes political discourse, this lovely quote crossed my path (it paraphrases Professor Cass R. Sunstein’s ideas):

In the mid-20th century, Americans got most of their news through a few big networks and mass-market magazines. People were forced to encounter political viewpoints different from their own. Moreover, the mass media gave Americans shared experiences. If you met strangers in a barbershop, you could be pretty sure you would have something in common to talk about from watching the same TV shows.

The underlying question is, of course, one that’s been debated in media sciences for a long time: Are a few mass media essential for political discourse by both filtering the most relevant information and providing focal points for discussions – and if so, will an unfiltered internet lead to a fragmentation of the debate? Or are the mass media the bottle neck that really prevents open discussion and the internet with its lack of hierarchies takes democratic debate to the next level?

Going back to the quote, I’d agree to the first bit: In mass media, at least in the more balanced ones, people are forced to encounter political viewpoints different from their own. (Quite what they make of that information is another question. Look it up.)

The second part, though, strikes me not only as wrong, but also as sad. If you met strangers in a barbershop (A barbershop? Really?), and you’d only have some TV shows to talk about, what a sad world. How about exchanging ideas about the stuff that’s been fascinating to you, and ask for the other person’s inspirations instead? How about discussing politics, or arts, or video podcasts or even TV shows, but not by comparing notes on the same stuff, but by sharing the interesting bits you found consuming them? Why not ask about a good place to have lunch?

Seriously, if the only conversation you can strike up is about a TV show, then maybe it’s better to just let the barber do their job and be done with it.

Luckily, a recent study on ideological segregation on the internet mentioned in the same article has shown that all of this isn’t true at all. Instead of clustering around sites with their own political agenda and viewpoint, most internet users travel far and wide and expose themselves to plenty of different political viewpoints. The world is saved.

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